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After USyd’s denial, Fair Work Ombudsman issues strong rebuke to universities

“It seems that everyone now knows systematic underpayment occurs in Australian universities — everyone, that is, except our managers.”

The Commonwealth Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) on Friday delivered a sternly-worded rebuke to universities over mass underpayment scandals and their treatment of casual employees. 

The comments, made in a webinar co-hosted by the FWO and Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) came the day after University of Sydney Chief HR Officer Karen Haywood dismissed casual employees’ claims of underpayment due to ‘piece rate’ payment as “a mistaken belief that casual academic staff are entitled to be paid for any time spent at their discretion and choice, rather than as required by the University.”

Ombudsman Sandra Parker highlighted “instances of large-scale systematic underpayment of employee wages, particularly the wages of casual academics and professional staff” and told the webinar of “likely breaches arising from…a custom and practice of applying piece rate style performance benchmarks such as those containing policies relating to marking and student consultation, which are most likely in breach of the relevant enterprise agreement and have not had any worker input or consultation.” 

Parker’s comments can be seen as a direct criticism of universities’ responses to casual staff’s concerns — exemplified by USyd’s recent off-hand dismissal of wage theft. Emeritus Professor Peter Coaldrake, Chief Commissioner of TEQSA, further sunk the boot in: “Poor practice is probably best exemplified by the response that ‘there’s no problem here’ and ‘we’ve got it under control.’ That is not helpful.”

USyd’s claim that there was ‘no wage theft’ was predicated on a ‘desktop audit’ of staff timesheets. Staff have told Honi that “when casuals do claim the actual hours they work above that allowed by the university, their timesheets are consistently rejected. This means that casual timesheets are routinely false due to the constraints established by management, and cannot be relied upon for determinations of underpayment.”

Coaldrake agreed with this assessment: “It’s not helpful if institutions go through the motions of review of wage theft compliance particularly if they do so in a very narrow way.” 

A spokesperson for the USyd Casuals Network described the webinar as a “shot across the bow” to universities, telling Honi that “TEQSA and the FWO know full well the nature and breadth of underpayment that occurs in Australian universities, and they have had enough of the feigned surprise of university manager when it is raised.”

“It seems that everyone now knows systematic underpayment occurs in Australian universities — everyone, that is, except our managers.”

Emphasising the point, Coaldrake told the webinar that “these issues go to the proper governance of the institutions and if governing bodies are unaware of these issues, then I think we all agree that institutions aren’t taking them as seriously as they should.”

Parker revealed that the FWO was investigating 14 universities over potential underpayment issues. She further criticised universities’ attitudes when outed for wage theft: “We often hear from employers that the underpayments are a small percentage of total payroll. Our response is that the amounts owed to workers are not small to them and they are very quick to point out to us that their executives never seem to be underpaid.”